The Clippers topped the Rockets on Monday night in Game 1 of their conference semifinal series 117–101 behind Blake Griffin's 26-point, 14-rebound, 13-assist effort—his second straight playoff triple-double.
Griffin's play was especially critical given the hamstring injury to Chris Paul that sidelined him for Game 1, limited him in the Game 7 win over San Antonio, and has him listed as day-to-day going forward.
Should Los Angeles have any hopes of advancing to the conference finals, either Paul is going to have to return (very soon) or Griffin is going to have to continue to carry the load.
Monday, the fifth-year veteran took advantage of various matchup problems—Houston had the smaller Josh Smith guarding him at different junctures—that allowed him some easy shots in the lane.
While Paul's hamstring injury is a major issue for Los Angeles (and any titles hopes they might have), it could allow Griffin to establish himself as more of the face of the team.
Though the two All-Stars have been together for four seasons following Paul's trade to the Clippers in 2011, the 29-year-old Paul is the more established of the two. Long regarded as the NBA's top point guard, the Wake Forest alum has been an All-NBA First-Team selection, as well as an All-Defensive selection, three straight seasons.
Meanwhile the 26-year-old Griffin, who was the Clippers' first overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, has been a very respectable All-NBA Second-Team selection three straight years. Yet when the Clippers need a crucial basket, the ball is usually in Paul's hands.
During the fourth quarter of Game 5, first-round matchup between Los Angeles and San Antonio, the Clippers staged a big rally with Paul playing the role of the catalyst. The speedy point guard sliced up the Spurs' defense and had the team on the verge of winning—until DeAndre Jordan's offensive basket interference in the final seconds lost them the game.
Then in Game 7, with the score tied, it was Paul who drove the lane and then hit the running hook shot that won the series.
Griffin's situation is similar to Kobe Bryant's a decade ago.
Both Kobe and Shaquille O'Neal came to Los Angeles in the summer of 1996—Kobe as a first-round draft pick and Shaq via the biggest free agency signing in NBA history.
Within a couple of years Kobe's talent was undeniable, yet it was Shaq who carried the load, winning MVP in 2000 and Finals MVP three straight years (2000–02) during the Lakers' three-peat. Following Shaq's trade to Miami in 2004, though, the team clearly was Kobe's and he pounced on the opportunity. The fiercely competitive shooting guard won MVP in 2008 and was named Finals MVP in both 2009 and 2010 as the Lakers won back-to-back titles.
Whether Griffin and Paul win an NBA title seems inevitable now with Doc Rivers as coach. Whether Griffin steps out enough to win Finals MVP when they do, will be the real question.